On Friday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) spent the morning at Houston’s Johnson Space Center for a ceremony announcing the nine astronauts who will fly aboard NASA’s first commercial crew missions. During the visit, Cruz burnished his space credentials, noting that nearly full funding for the commercial crew program by Congress coincided with his selection as chairman of the Senate committee that oversees NASA in 2015.
Recently, Sen. Cruz said that—while he does not oppose the Trump administration’s plan to use the Moon as a proving ground for human exploration in deep space—NASA’s goal must remain Mars, with human landings in the 2030s. “Let me be clear,” he said at a committee hearing last month. “Mars is today the focal point of our national space program. And if American boots are to be the first to set foot on its surface, it will define a new generation. Generation Mars.”
With this statement in mind, Ars spoke to Cruz after Friday’s ceremony in Houston. How did he think NASA could reach Mars by then, absent a large infusion of money?
“We’ve seen NASA budgets in recent years increasing, and increasing substantially, but we’re never going to have sufficient taxpayer money to fund what needs to be done in space unless we can leverage billions and billions of dollars from the private sector,” he said. “That’s how we get the resources that are really needed to conquer the next frontier.”
Asked about SpaceX’s plans to build the large Big Falcon Rocket designed expressly to send humans to Mars and the company’s plans to launch it from South Texas, Cruz said that is the type of innovation NASA must leverage if it is to succeed in getting to the Red Planet.
“The innovation that we’re seeing from SpaceX and from private companies across the board is much of the reason for the optimism we see concerning space,” Cruz said. “We need competition and entrepreneurs inventing and innovating. You know, just a few years ago the concept of reusable rockets, rockets that could land and be used again, would have seemed like science fiction. Now we’re seeing that done. That’s the kind of innovation it’s going to take to get to Mars and beyond, and it is only through robust competition in the private sector that we’ll see that happen.”
Cruz said he sees strong bipartisan support in Congress for NASA to continue working more and more with the commercial space industry.
His comments came a day after the new NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, also praised commercial innovations that have the potential to lower the cost of access to space. “We know how reusability of rockets has changed the game for access to space and how it’s just driven down the cost, and it will continue to drive down the cost,” Bridenstine said. “So at NASA, we need to be looking at things differently. We need to be a customer when we can be a customer.”
So far, neither Congress nor the space agency has shown any inclination to invest in the Big Falcon Rocket under development by SpaceX, the first reusable rocket sized to send large payloads to the surface of Mars. However, several agency scientists and officials did attend a workshop this week convened by SpaceX to begin discussions of human landings on Mars.